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House Ratings Changes - October 15, 2010

A Commentary By Isaac Wood

Polling, independent expenditures, and the general intensification of campaigns across the country provide us with new clues about the November outcome that is in store. Our overall view of the Republican wave remains the same, at a GOP net pick-up of 47 seats, but we now know more about which seats are truly endangered and where each side was just tilting at windmills.

This week, we make 26 changes to our House ratings. Among our changes this week, there is a lone bright spot for Democrats. In OH-13, incumbent Betty Sutton looks to have dodged the danger, as her GOP challenger has pulled his ads and seems to have thrown in the towel following allegations of sexual harassment. We move this race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

Most of the movement, however, is in the Republican direction. For the first time this year, the Crystal Ball is moving Democratic-held seats into the Likely Republican category. Democrats have now tipped their hand about where they will be concentrating their resources and these seven open seat races did not make the cut. As a result we move the following races from Leans Republican to Likely Republican: AR-2, IN-8, KS-3, LA-3, NY-29, TN-6, and TN-8.

In addition we are moving two more seats previously classified as Toss-Ups to Leans Republican status.

  • In NC-8, Democrat Larry Kissell has repeated his tradition of poor fundraising but the DCCC likely does not have the money or patience to bail him out to the degree they did in 2008. In addition, that victory relied heavily on Obama voters who flocked to the polls in this 28% African-American district. That also will not be repeated, likely consigning Kissell to defeat by former sportscaster Harold Johnson.
  • The open seat contest in WI-7, where Democrat David Obey had served for over 40 years before announcing his retirement, also seems like an increasingly likely prospect for a GOP takeover. A recent nonpartisan poll from The Hill newspaper had former Real World cast member and current Republican nominee Sean Duffy leading Democratic legislator Julie Lassa by a 44%-35% margin with voters disapproving of Obama by roughly the same margin, despite the district’s usual Democratic tilt in presidential election years. Lassa’s own polling had earlier shown her trailing only slightly, while NRCC polling had suggested a double-digit lead. However large the lead, all sides now seem to acknowledge it belongs to the GOP.

The ranks of our Toss-Up races are increasing, as we add nine races featuring Democratic incumbents from Leans Democratic to Toss-Up.

  • AZ-8 is a race that Democrats insist is salvageable, as incumbent Gabrielle Giffords has received some support from conservative sources and faces a political newcomer with Tea Party ties in Jesse Kelly. Kelly’s huge fundraising haul and energized supporters, however, show that he is not to be taken lightly. This will be a closely contested race on slightly Republican turf, and given Gifford’s slim wins in heavily Democratic years, this may be her toughest challenge yet.
  • Republican and nonpartisan polling has shown Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney trailing in CA-11 in this battleground match-up against Republican David Harmer. The DCCC has tried to label Harmer “a bailed-out bank executive” but trashing the bailouts cannot be a great strategy for saving a congressman who voted for them. For their part, the NRCC has coined the moniker “Party line Jerry McNerney.” We will have to wait to see which label sticks.
  • The CO-3 race demonstrates a trend we are seeing across the country as a rematch of a recent race may now go the GOP’s way given the different dynamics of this year. In 2006, Democrat John Salazar easily defeated Republican Scott Tipton, winning 61% of the vote. Now Tipton has the backing of the Tea Party—which did not even exist during his round one defeat—and an endorsement from Sarah Palin—who was still campaigning for the Alaska governorship at the time. In this very different landscape, Salazar is unlikely to repeat his large margin of victory and may end up with no victory at all.
  • In KY-6, Republican challenger Andy Barr is closing in on Democrat Ben Chandler. The district looks ripe for a takeover, with a relatively new Democratic congressman forced onto the defensive in a district that gave Obama just 43% of the vote in 2008. The DCCC has begun running tough ads on Barr, a sign of their concern but also a test for the first-time GOP candidate. Barr’s camp touts a poll from early October showing him in the lead by the narrowest of margins, but Chandler’s side counters that they are still in front. In the end, the question is moot, as all that matters is who leads three weeks from now, with plenty of twists and turns in store.
  • This are getting heated in NJ-3, where evidence has surfaced that supporters of Democrat John Adler may be connected to the campaign of Peter DeStefano, who is running as a “Tea Party” candidate. According to reports, his campaign manager recruited and gathered signatures to get DeStefano on the ballot, although Adler denies any knowledge of the ploy. Polling has consistently shown a narrow lead for Adler but this developing story could prove to be his undoing.
  • Zack Space in OH-18 is feeling the heat from both sides. Labor unions are encouraging voters to “Skip a Space” on the ballot and not vote for him as punishment for his vote against health care reform, while the GOP seeks to tie him to Pelosi for his stimulus vote. The district is clearly Republican, if not overwhelmingly so, and Space is only in his second term. Republican nominee Bob Gibbs has a good shot here if he can capitalize on the unrest from voters on both sides.
  • The PA-10 contest remains deadlocked even as GOP nominee Tom Marino is facing questions over his questionable ties and subsequent resignation as a U.S. Attorney. As the press explores the record, the DCCC is already running ads targeting Marino while the NRCC tries to focus attention on Democratic Rep. Chris Carney and his stimulus and bank bailout votes he cast alongside Nancy Pelosi. Voters will have to decide for themselves whose ties are more objectionable.
  • The Republican-leaning district of TX-23 saw a 17% swing towards Democrats between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. With the rare mid-decade redistricting in Texas and a big boost in turnout among Democrats in 2008, the true nature of the district is far from clear. Republicans, however, feel like they will have a leg up this year with very different turnout and a mood swing from voters. Republican nominee Quico Canseco has released two internal polls showing him with the lead, but that is the only polling available so far. Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez has already been booted from Congress once—from the 28th District following a heated post-redistricting race—and there are no assurances that he will not suffer the same fate again.
  • Just a week ago, we upgraded WI-8 as polling showed this race as surprisingly competitive. Now comes news that the NRCC has jumped into this race with both feet while the DCCC is running the other way. This contest is developing rapidly. Who knows what next week will bring?

We also are upgrading three Likely Democratic races to Leans Democratic, as former Republican pipe dreams now appear to be realistic pick-up opportunities.

  • In CT-5, the polling has been all over the place, but the takeaway message is clear: this is a quite competitive contest. Democrat Chris Murphy represents a district that John Kerry won by 1,100 votes in 2004, but Obama carried by nearly 50,000 votes four years later. The pendulum has swung back past 2004 and Republicans should significantly outperform their showing from that year, which is a clear cause for concern for Murphy.
  • The news goes from bad to worse for Phil Hare in IL-17. Late last month he made his first appearance on our list of competitive races and now he becomes an even juicier GOP target. Outside groups have jumped in, from the NRCC to the American Future Fund, both of which are spending in the six figures on TV ads. The DCCC has been forced to spend over half a million dollars over the past two weeks to defend Hare, not exactly where they thought they would be spending their scarce resources. Hare’s GOP opponent, Bobby Schilling, is touting a late September poll showing him down by just a single point, a claim Hare and Democrats have yet to refute.
  • Republicans sense a golden opportunity in OH-6, where they claim to hold a slim lead over Democrat Charlie Wilson. They have moved their nominee, Bill Johnson, to “Young Gun” status and started running ads this week, accusing Wilson of being a patsy for Nancy Pelosi. Before Wilson took the seat in 2006, it belonged to now-Governor Ted Strickland. With Strickland’s reelection bid faltering and Democratic Senate hopes in Ohio all but dashed, Wilson will not be getting much help from the top of the ticket. Wilson has bounced back before, most notably by winning a write-in bid for the Democratic nomination in 2006, but this would be a tough test for any pol.

Lastly, we add four new Democratic-held seats to our competitive races chart, moving them from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

  • Raul Grijalva in AZ-7 is the trendiest dark horse GOP pick-up opportunity this week. Grijalva is a liberal Democrat, chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who represents a district that went 57% for both Obama and Kerry during their respective presidential runs. How is he endangered? One word: boycott. Following the Arizona legislature’s adoption of a controversial immigration measure in April, Grijalva signed onto the call for a national boycott of Arizona. It was a popular move among liberals, but not among Arizonans, hampered as all states have been by the tough economic times. His Republican opponent, Ruth McClung, has garnered a Sarah Palin endorsement, sure to bring national attention but also a degree of skepticism from the district’s less conservative voters. If Democrats lose here, it will be a truly needless fumble.
  • The contest in CA-20 actually already appeared at one time on our list of competitive races, but it seemed Democratic Rep. Jim Costa had beaten back the challenge from Republican farmer Andy Vidak. A September poll, however, showed Vidak trailing within the margin of error and now the NRCC is sending him some much-needed campaign cash. Costa still has a clear lead, but some outside attention and resources could make this race a little more interesting.
  • Republicans have insisted there is a close race brewing in NC-7, where they have pumped in over a quarter of a million dollars in national money so far. Incumbent Democrat Mike McIntyre certainly was not a top tier target, as a conservative seven-term congressman from only a marginally Republican district, but recent polling has emboldened the GOP. A nonpartisan poll showed the race in a dead heat, although the DCCC’s polling shows a double-digit lead for McIntyre. Democrats think they will close this one out, citing GOP nominee Ilario Pantano’s murder charges following shooting two unarmed Iraqi prisoners in 2004. McIntyre has shied away from attacking him on that basis, but if this race remains close, other Democratic groups may not have the same restraint.
  • A six-term congressman from NJ-12 which went 58% for Obama in 2008 does not seem like the most natural GOP target. A new poll, however, seems to suggest that it could be. Democratic Rep. Rush Holt is facing self-funding Republican nominee Scott Sipprelle, who actually ran three TV ads before the incumbent ran his first ad in early September. Now a Monmouth University poll suggests Holt better make better use of the remaining time before the election, as he has only a 51%-46% lead and Obama’s approval has fallen to 44%. If this race becomes a serious contest, the battle lines will have moved so far into Democratic territory that Republicans will be in for gains of historic proportions.

Isaac T. Woods is the House Race Editor for   Sabato's Crystal Ball   at the University of Virginia.

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See Other   Commentaries By Isaac T. Wood   

 Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.  

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